The meeting with Chef Angus Campbell took place last Thursday at the Secchia Culinary Institute in downtown Grand Rapids. I had come to gauge his interest in appearing in Duba & Company’s pilot video cooking tutorial. For a number of reasons, he’d fit perfectly in a film which demonstrates the nuances of working with Scottish Highland beef, beef which comes–of course–from a heritage breed of cattle. For one, he is a teacher with his own cooking show (Cooking with Angus). His engaging personality, ease in front of the camera, passion for food, and gift of teaching has won him the respect and admiration of audiences, chefs, and students. Best of all, his Scottish roots run deep: he hails from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, speaks Gaelic, and his English rolls of the tongue in a thick, Scottish brogue. Originally, our meeting was to take place over a casual lunch at the Institute’s student-run Heritage Restaurant, plans which had to be changed. I remember thinking to myself what a nice coincidence it was that the restaurant’s name is also the descriptor of the very meats that our company purveys (the restaurant was thus named, presumably, because of its being located in or near the historic Heritage Hill district of Grand Rapids were Victorian houses dot the once brick or cobblestone streets). While this coincidence is a quaint one, nothing was to prepare me for the incredible way in which Angus’ life and mine were entwined.
Upon arrival at the Institute, the secretary at the front desk ushered me back to Chef’s office. On his desk was a photo of him with Chef Gordon Ramsey (of Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares fame). Both were younger in the framed picture, but what struck me was just how much younger Angus appears in real life as compared to television. Now, I wasn’t about to say anything about his more youthful appearance, owing to a “learning experience” some twenty years before. Visiting a high school friend of mine at his northeast side home, we found his parents playing host to a local celebrity. After having been re-introduced, I intended to compliment him by saying, “You look thinner in person than on television. I guess it’s true what they say, ‘Television adds twenty pounds.'” The atmosphere in the room grew suddenly tense, tension that was finally broke by his retort, “No, actually it’s eating that adds twenty pounds.” I’d like to say that I learned my lesson that day, but it’s still one of my idiosyncrasies: the absent-minded, good-intentioned, albeit inappropriate remark. My idiosyncratic nature is further exhibited by a fetish for smelling things–anything, really, but especially books.
The revered Scottish chef took me into the board room where we sat on either side of the conference table. We discovered that both of us had spent time on the remote Isle of Arran, an island off of Scotland’s western shore. He was there in ’89 and I in ’98. It was on the Isle of Arran, incidentally, that I took a bike ride along the coastline, stopping to talk to a pair of Scottish lasses who–it was discovered–had attended school just an hour south of Grand Rapids in Kalamazoo, Michigan (what are the chances?). Now here is where things get really interesting. Angus suddenly stops me with what seems an innocuous question about the tweed jacket I was wearing, “Is that Harris Tweed?” I’ll confess I didn’t understand at first that the query concerned my favorite sports jacket (it’s the same coat I’ve donned in the 2013 Duba & Company Promotional Video). Picking up on this, he tried again, “Where did you get your jacket?” Quite frankly, I had bought this jacket maybe ten years ago at a Goodwill store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and said as much. He asked me to pull open my jacket, reveling the labeling inside. Humoring him, I held my coat open like some watch salesman (something I’ve only seen in the picture books, by the way: I can’t definitely say that people pin watches inside their coats and hawk them). Harris Tweed, indeed! “My father,” says Angus, “made the wool of that jacket.” (His father, apparently, just recently hung up the loom.) And what of the label stitched inside bearing the official emblem of Harris Tweed? Sewed on my jacket by his best friend, all in the Highlands of Scotland, in Newtonmore. (That label appears at the bottom of this post.) Who knew the coat had such a noble heritage?
That setting the tone for our time together, I freely shared that about an award-winning chili recipe that I created using ground of Highland beef: a recipe inspired by the national dish of Scotland, haggis (please read the account of that recipe here). Having raised his own cattle in the past, he told me of just what could be done to make the flavor of, for instance, Highland beef even more fascinating (why not have them graze on heather?), and that of heritage pigs and sheep (you could feed them chocolate husks or allspice berries). What would that do to the flavor of the meat? The atmosphere in the room crackled with inspiration and one’s imagination could begin to taste what was being envisioned.
Walking into the board room at the Secchia Institute that day, I had been principally concerned with finding and providing our customers the best in heritage meats (no easy task, believe me: not, though, so much because there is so little great heritage meat; there’s just precious little heritage meat, period). This quest remains an obsession. But sitting at the feet of this master, I realized something more was beginning to emerge: a passion for an undertaking–years though it may be–of partnering with artisanal farmers who can help us raise a mythical product perceived in my mind last Thursday, meats perhaps the world has never tasted. As we stood up to leave, Chef and I shook hands. Then, he did something truly amazing–something only I could have appreciated. He took the hem of my jacket–my Harris Tweed jacket–lifted it to his nose, and drew a deep breath.